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The SAT: Writing


The Essay Question

Writing a strong SAT essay is a lot like preparing fast food: It has to be both quick and consistent. Just as fast-food restaurants use the same ingredients and preparation methods at every location, you should always adhere to the same essay-writing procedure on the SAT.


The Four SAT Essay Ingredients

SAT essay scores (1–6) are based on:

  • Positioning: The strength and clarity of your position on the given topic

  • Examples: The relevance and development of the examples you use to support your argument

  • Organization: The organization of each of your paragraphs and of your essay overall

  • Command of language: Sentence construction, grammar, and word choice


1. Positioning

  • Typical SAT essay topics address broad ideas or themes, such as “the concept of justice,” “the definition of success,” “the importance of learning from mistakes,” and so on.

  • A solid position on an SAT topic:

    • Is simple.

    • Redefines the broad topic in slightly less broad terms. To achieve this, rephrase the topic in your own words and agree with it or disagree.


2. Examples

Two things make the examples in an excellent SAT essay stand out:

  • Specific examples: Mention specific dates, people, locations, and so on.

  • Variety of examples: Select a broad range of examples from different areas (history, current events, personal experience, and so on). Make sure that all examples work to prove your argument.


3. Organization

  • The organization of SAT essays should always be the same.

  • A good SAT essay is a lot like a triple-decker burger:

The Top Bun: The Introduction
  • Your introduction must:

    • Contain 3–4 sentences

    • Introduce a thesis statement that states your position on the topic

    • Explain your position on the topic clearly and concisely

    • Transition the grader smoothly into your three examples

The Meat: Three Example Paragraphs
  • Each of the three example paragraphs should:

    • Contain 4–5 sentences

    • Begin with a topic sentence that explains your example and places it within the context of your argument. Your topic sentence serves as the thesis statement of each paragraph.

    • Develop your example in the next 3–4 sentences. You must show, through specific, concrete discussion of facts, how your example supports your thesis statement.

The Bottom Bun: The Conclusion
  • The conclusion of your essay should:

    • Contain 3-4 sentences

    • Recap your argument while broadening it to wider fields like politics, business, and art

    • Push a little further. Look to the future and think about your position being applied on a broader scale.

The Universal SAT Essay Template
Paragraph   Contents   Length   Purpose
1. Introduction   Thesis Statement   1 sentence   Describe your argument clearly and concisely.
  Essay Summary   3 sentences   Lay out the three examples you will use to support your thesis statement.
2. First Example Paragraph   Topic Sentence   1 sentence   Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis.
  Example Development   3–4 sentences   Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
3. Second Example Paragraph   Topic Sentence   1 sentence   Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis. Provide a transition from the previous example paragraph.
  Example Development   3–4 sentences   Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
4. Third Example Paragraph   Topic Sentence   1 sentence   Describe your example and fit it into the context of your overall thesis. Provide a transition from the previous paragraph.
  Example Development   3–4 sentences   Use specific facts to show how your example supports your argument. Be as specific as possible.
5. Conclusion   Recap   1 sentence   Predict the Future
  Summarize your argument and examples and link the examples to broader fields like politics, history, art, business, and so on.   2–3 sentences   Broaden your argument even further by contemplating what would happen in the world if people (or nations, businesses) followed the argument you make in your essay.


4. Command of Language

Your command of language is your fast food essay’s “special sauce”—the sprinkling of perfect word choice, grammar, sentence structure, and spelling that oozes through your entire essay.

To impress the SAT grader with your command of language, pay close attention to these three facets of your essay:

  • Variation in sentence structure

  • Word choice

  • Grammar and spelling

Vary sentence length and sentence structure.

  • Too many short sentences in a row will make your writing choppy.

  • Too many long sentences in a row will make your writing tedious and hard to follow.

Transitions are helpful in varying sentence structure. Transitions are used to:

  • Show contrast (e.g., In contrast, However, Nevertheless, But, Yet, or Despite)

  • Elaborate (e.g., Moreover, Furthermore, Also, or In addition)

  • Provide an example (e.g., For example, For instance, Such as, or Specifically)

  • Show results (e.g., As a result, Consequently, For this reason, Accordingly, Therefore, or Hence)

  • Show sequence (e.g., Soon after, Next, or Then)

Be certain that your word choice reflects words that you are able to use appropriately and effectively.

  • Don’t go for the big word every time. Instead, you should go for the proper word, the best word, the word that makes your essay as clear as possible

  • If you’re straining to put a fancy word into your essay, you’re likely to misuse it—and misusing a sophisticated word is worse than not using one at all.

Occasional grammar and spelling errors will not destroy your score. Graders are instructed to look out for patterns of grammar and spelling errors.

Here are some examples of commonly misused words:

Affect/effect: Affect is a verb meaning “to cause something to change.” Effect is a noun meaning “a result brought about by a cause.”

  • He tried to affect the outcome.

  • He had an effect on the outcome.

All ready/already: All ready means “prepared.” Already means “previously.”

  • The dancer was all ready to go on stage.

  • The dancer’s performance is over already.

And also: And also is redundant. Use either “and” or “also,” not both

Between/among: Between is used when something is shared by only two people or things. Among is used when something is shared by more than two people or things.

  • This secret will remain between you and me.

  • Among the four brothers, Aaron was the tallest.

Different from/different than: In most cases, different from is preferred over different than.

Further/farther: Further refers to time or degree. Farther refers to physical distance.

  • After further thought, he chose to surrender.

  • He moved the desks farther apart to avoid crowding.

Good/well: Good is an adjective; well is an adverb.

  • The good man donated half of his estate to charity.

  • I don’t feel well; my stomach hurts.

Its/it’s: Its is the possessive form of “it.” It’s is a contraction meaning “it is.”

  • Its main use is as a spice grinder.

  • It’s used mainly for grinding spices.

Than/then: Than is a comparative term. Then refers to chronological sequence.

  • Cornelius was smarter than Rocky.

  • I slept, and then I woke up.

That/which: That is used to provide information that is necessary to identify a specific item. Which is used to add extra information about an item already identified.

  • The ticket that John bought was nonrefundable.

  • John paid for the ticket, which cost fifty dollars.

They’re/there/their: They’re is a conjunction of “they are.” There usually serves as an adverb indicating place or as a helping word that introduces a clause or sentence. Their is a possessive adjective.

  • Bill and Jane can’t come because they’re out of town.

  • There are ten sheep over there in that pasture.

  • Those kids have blue eyes just like their mother.

Who/whom: Who is a subject; whom is an object.

  • Tim saw Cheryl, who was wearing a red coat.

  • Tim saw Cheryl, whom he loves like a sister.

Dangling modifier: A modifying word or phrase that is not properly matched with the word it modifies. Dangling modifiers often occur at the beginnings of sentences.

  • Incorrect: Traveling north, the trees get smaller.

  • Correct: Traveling north, I notice that the trees get smaller.

Squinting modifier: A modifier that is placed ambiguously, so that it is unclear whether it modifies the word before it or the word after it.

  • Incorrect: People who travel in Europe often prefer to stay in affordable hotels.

  • Correct: Often, people who travel in Europe prefer to stay in affordable hotels.

Pronoun confusion: Pronouns that do not have clear antecedents make sentences confusing.

  • Incorrect: Jacob called Jason to ask about his car.

  • Correct: Jacob called Jason to ask about Jason’s car.

Split infinitives: If possible, no words should come between to and the main verb in the infinitive form of a verb (e.g., to drive, to eat, to live).

  • Incorrect: He decided to boldly go where no man had gone before.

  • Correct: He decided to go boldly where no man had gone before.

Comma splicing: Joining two independent clauses with a comma instead of a semicolon or period creates a run-on sentence.

  • Incorrect: Many people think I’m tall, they don’t realize I wear platform shoes.

  • Correct: Many people think I’m tall; they don’t realize I wear platform shoes.

Double negatives: When applied to the same word or phrase, two negative modifiers confuse the meaning of the sentence.

  • Incorrect: I haven’t hardly begun to think about the test.

  • Correct: I have hardly begun to think about the test.

Here are some examples of commonly misspelled words:
Incorrect   Correct
alot   a lot
arguement   argument
calender   calendar
committee   committee
committment   commitment
definately   definitely
desparate   desperate
develope   develop
dispair   despair
dissappoint   disappoint
embarassed   embarrassed
excede   exceed
existance   existence
fasinate   fascinate
inadvertant   inadvertent
irrelavent   irrelevant
independant   independent
judgement   judgment
mideval   medieval
millenium   millennium
miniscule   minuscule
mischevous   mischievous
necesary   necessary
noticable   noticeable
occured   occurred
payed   paid
perseverence   perseverance
preceed   precede
priviledge   privilege
publically   publicly
recieve   receive
reccomend   recommend
repitition   repetition
seperate   separate
succesion   succession
tyrrany   tyranny
wierd   weird
withold   withhold
yeild   yield


Writing Your SAT Essay

You will have 25 minutes to write your SAT essay. To use this limited time effectively, spend it as follows:

STEP 1   Understand the topic and take a position   1 MINUTE
STEP 2   Brainstorm examples   2–3 MINUTES
STEP 3   Create an outline   3–4 MINUTES
STEP 4   Write the essay   15 MINUTES
STEP 5   Proof the essay   2 MINUTES

Step 1: Understand the topic and take a position (1 minute)
  • Sample topic:

    • Topic: Consider the following statement and assignment. Then write an essay as directed.

      “There’s no success like failure.”

      Assignment: Write an essay in which you agree or disagree with the statement above. Remember to back up your position with specific examples from personal experience, current events, history, literature, or any other discipline. Your essay should be specific.

  • Brainstorm a list by category.

  • Choose your top three examples based on:

    • Which examples can you be most specific about?

    • Which examples will give your essay the broadest range?

    • Which examples are not controversial?

Step 2: Brainstorm examples (2–3 minutes)

Sample list brainstormed for the topic “There’s no success like failure”:


Current Events


Failure of 9/11 security led to overhaul of Homeland Security




Babies learn to walk only after trying and failing time and time again.




Can’t think of one




US Constitution was written only after the failure of the Articles of Confederation.




Can’t think of one




James Joyce became a writer only after failing as a singer


Personal Experience


Rod Johnson (your uncle) realized the need for a placement agency in South Carolina after getting laid off.




Google watched the failures of its competitors and learned to improve its Internet business model and technology.

Step 3: Create an outline (3–4 minutes)
  • When thinking about your essay, it’s crucial that you organize your ideas in outline form and then stick to that outline.

  • Your outline should contain all the essential raw material of your essay.

  • Put your strongest example first, followed by the second strongest and then the least strong.

  • Once your outline is complete, writing the essay requires only that you polish your language and ideas.

Paragraph 1



Failure can lead to success, teaching lessons, learning from mistakes. Three examples:

  1. Constitution and Articles failure

  2. Failed dot-coms lead to better, more successful online businesses

  3. Guy who started successful recruiting business after getting laid off

Paragraph 2



US Constitution developed by studying the failures of previous document, Articles of Confederation. By studying failures, US became true revolutionary democracy.

Paragraph 3



Google studied competitors’ struggles, came up with better technological solution and better business model. Since failure is good teacher, intelligent companies look for failure everywhere, even in rivals, to learn and evolve.

Paragraph 4



Johnson founded job placement agency based on difficulties finding a new job after getting laid off. Studied his failure, found problems lie with system, not with him.

Paragraph 5



Failure often seen as embarrassing. People try to hide it. But if you or society take responsibility for it, study it, history shows failure leads to success for everyone

Step 4: Write the essay (15 minutes)
  • As you expand your outline into an essay, keep organization, development, and clarity foremost in your mind.

  • If you run out of time, drop one of your example paragraphs.

  • Be sure to include an introduction and a conclusion in every SAT essay.

Step 5: Proof the essay (2 minutes)
  • Proofing your essay means reading through your finished essay to correct rough writing, bad transitions, grammatical errors, repetitive sentence structure, and all other errors.

  • Be careful to look for places in which bad handwriting makes it look as if you’ve made an error in grammar or spelling.

  • If you don’t have two minutes after you’ve finished writing the essay, spend whatever time you do have left proofing. However, if you must skip a step, proofing is the step to drop.


Learning the lessons taught by failure is a sure route to success. The United States of America can be seen as a success that emerged from failure: By learning from the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, the founding fathers were able to create the Constitution, the document on which America is built. Google Inc., the popular Internet search engine, is another example of a success that arose from learning from failure, though in this case Google learned from the failures of its competitors. Another example that shows how success can arise from failure is the story of Rod Johnson, who started a recruiting firm that rose out of the ashes of Johnson’s personal experience of being laid off.

TOPIC SENTENCE FOR EXAMPLE 1   The United States, the first great democracy of the modern world, is also one of the best examples of a success achieved by studying and learning from earlier failures. After just five years of living under the Articles of Confederation, which established the United States of America as a single country for the first time, the states realized that they needed a new document and a new, more powerful government. In 1786, the Annapolis Convention was convened. The result, three years later, was the Constitution, which created a more powerful central government while also maintaining the integrity of the states. By learning from the failure of the Articles, the Founding Fathers created the founding document of a country that has become both the most powerful country in the world and a beacon of democracy.
TOPIC SENTENCE FOR EXAMPLE 2   Unlike the United States, which has had its fair share of ups and downs over the years, the Internet search engine company Google Inc. has suffered few setbacks since it went into business in the late 1990s. Google has succeeded by studying the failures of other companies in order to help it innovate its technology and business model. Google identified and solved the problem of assessing the quality of search results by using the number of links pointing to a page as an indicator of the number of people who find the page valuable. Suddenly, Google’s search results became far more accurate and reliable than those from other companies, and now Google’s dominance in the field of Internet search is almost absolute.
TOPIC SENTENCE FOR EXAMPLE 3   The example of Rod Johnson’s success as an entrepreneur in the recruiting field also shows how effective learning from mistakes and failure can be. Rather than accept his failure after being laid off, Johnson decided to study it. After a month of research, Johnson realized that his failure to find a new job resulted primarily from the inefficiency of the local job placement agencies, not from his own deficiencies. A month later, Johnson created Johnson Staffing to correct this weakness in the job placement sector. Today Johnson Staffing is the largest job placement agency in South Carolina, and is in the process of expanding into a national corporation.
THESIS STATEMENT REPHRASED IN BROADER WAY THAT PUSHES IT FURTHER   Failure is often seen as embarrassing, something to be denied and hidden. But as the examples of the U.S. Constitution, Google, and Rod Johnson prove, if an individual, organization, or even a nation is strong enough to face and study its failure, then that failure can become a powerful teacher. The examples of history and business demonstrate that failure can be the best catalyst of success, but only if people have the courage to face it head-on.

Reasons this SAT essay would receive a score of 5 or 6:

  • It takes a strong and clear stance on the topic in the first sentence and sticks to it from start to finish.

  • It uses three examples from an array of disciplines.

  • The organization of the essay follows the Universal SATEssay Template perfectly.

  • Command of language remains solid throughout.

  • Sentence structure is varied, making the entire essay more interesting and engaging to the grader.

  • There are no significant grammatical errors.